When people find out my husband and I have three girls, they offer a variety of responses. Most of these are not positive and uplifting.
Three girls. I bet you’re still trying for a boy.
Poor Dad. You’re really outnumbered, huh?
They must have their daddy wrapped around their fingers.
Usually these comments are from people I do not know well, making the decisions about how to respond all the more difficult for me. I understand that many times people are joking, but there are disturbing beliefs often behind these sarcastic statements.
Daughters are radically different than boys.
Fathers can’t bond with girls as well as they can with boys.
Life is more complete, for mothers and fathers, when they have a son.
In the United States, the ideal for families is often to have a daughter and a son, while in other places, we know that having boys is viewed as more preferable to having girls. For example, the film It’s a Girl, released last year, documents the killing of baby girls in South Asia. The following clip below, the official trailer for the film, touches upon some of the reasons and consequences of this reality.
Some of the same anti-female bias that drives the reality of infanticide and abandonment of female children exists in the United States. Women and men, boys and girls, are valued in different ways, and we attach different potential to each of them. And while I assume that very few of the people encouraging me to have a boy would explicitly agree that females are worth less than males, they often see their potential as more limited than that of boys. They see boys and girls as more different than they are similar.
However, when people bring girls into their families, we see that attitudes change. My current research project examines women leaders in the evangelical world. Anecdotally, it’s clear that for many men who encourage women in leadership within the Church, it is the stories of their mothers and their daughters that make them passionate about gender issues. Seeing their potential limited can make men more passionate about issues of gender justice. On a larger scale, past social science evidence affirms that especially for men, having daughters seems to create more feminist views. (Interestingly enough, some of this effect is found when men only have daughters.) A 2008 article by Ebonya Washington, “Female Socialization: How Daughters Affect Their Legislator Fathers’ Voting on Women’s Issues,” includes a good review of the literature regarding what we know about dads and daughters. She further finds that having daughters actually causes male legislators (in the United States) to take a more liberal stance when it comes to women’s issues.
In my own life, I can also point to multiple ways that having three daughters has challenged some ways I think about gender. Even as I study gender and the social construction of gendered roles, my daughters have expanded my own understandings of what it means to be female–and ways we might think differently about that as a society. In the differences that exist among my daughters, they illustrate that there is not one model of dress, behavior, or preferred activities for girls. They illustrate some of the breadth of what it means to be female.
In socializing my first daughter, I was very intentional to let her know that she could do whatever she wanted, and be whatever she wanted to be. Yet in making sure she did not feel confined by what others characterized as ‘feminine,’ I believe I sometimes unintentionally devalued some of those stereotypical qualities we think of as feminine. What does it mean to have her celebrate the fact that she was created female? I want this child who loves soccer to see that using the strength of her body through sport is a feminine act. At the same time, I also want to affirm in another daughter her flair for fashion, and interest in drama.
So no, I’m not still trying for a boy. Rather, I am thankful that my husband and I have three daughters. In a world that often does not value girls for who they are and what they can be, I appreciate the chance to tell them a different story. I love watching them be sisters to one another. And my relationship with them has spurred me to continue to research gender related issues, with a hope that all families will celebrate their female children, and encourage them to live out their full potential.